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A Mother's Day “Hangup” For Prisoners

May 10, 2012

HARTFORD, Conn. - Prison inmates who call their mother on Mother's Day could pay as much as $2.75 a minute on a collect call. The rates vary widely from state to state but, in general, they burden families trying to provide support for incarcerated loved ones, advocacy groups say.

Lee Petro, a Washington, D.C., attorney and expert on prison telephone service contracts, blames monopolies that benefit phone companies and give commissions or "kickbacks" to state governments.

"In states where there are pre-existing contracts that involve commissions paid to local or state governments, a 15-minute phone call can cost more than $20."

The Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable is considering a case that calls for a review of what petitioners say are "unjust and unreasonable" rates. Historically, high rates have been rationalized by the need to monitor jailhouse calls. Advocates say better technology has brought those costs down, but inmates and their families still pay exorbitant rates.

Bonnie Tenneriello represents prisoners and families asking the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable to review and revise jailhouse phone rates. She is optimistic they will hear the case.

"Our petitioners are complaining that the prison rates make it impossible for them to stay in touch, and we've presented a wealth of evidence that these rates are unreasonable and excessive."

Steven Renderos is an organizer of Mother's Day of Action, to be held on Friday. He is collecting stories about prisoners and families affected by the high-cost phone calls, then will send them to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), he says.

"It's an opportunity to elevate stories from families, from people who have loved ones behind bars. We're going to send those stories directly to the FCC, because the Federal Communications Commission has a direct role to play in addressing the rates of phone calls within prisons."

Petro says high prison phone prices can drive a wedge between inmates and their families that, in the long run, burdens society.

"It's a proven fact, over and over again, that the level of contact they had while they were in prison - with their family and their social network - renders their re-entry into society more beneficial, more stable, and they are less likely to commit crime down the line."

Advocates say the problem affects those hardest-pressed to cope with it, pointing out that some 2.3 million people are incarcerated in America, nearly 40 percent of them black and nearly 20 percent Latino.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - CT